Any firm that wants to succeed needs a marketing plan. Without one, an organization has no systematic approach for promoting itself to potential clients. The alternative is a haphazard, start-and-stop, inefficient effort that wastes time and money — two valuable resources no professional services firm can afford to squander.

However, a marketing planning process that works well for consumer products, industrial goods, or not-for-profits is not well suited for professional services. This is a lesson we have learned after many years of working across these fields.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to put together an effective marketing plan specifically for a professional services firm like yours.

Of course, there’s more to a marketing plan than a list of ideas to promote your firm. You need to follow a specific process — one that produces a plan custom-tailored to your needs.

Before we get into that process, however, let’s clarify a few key marketing planning concepts.

Marketing Planning Process Defined

A marketing planning process is a systematic approach to developing marketing goals, strategies, and implementation tactics. It may be adapted to a wide variety of situations, from the launch of a new firm or practice area to the repositioning of an existing firm — even the routine planning of new business development activities.

Depending on your specific situation, certain phases of the process may be more or less important. For example, when launching a new practice area it’s prudent to focus on its strategic components. This is sometimes referred to as developing a go-to-market strategy

If you are repositioning your firm in the marketplace, often called rebranding, you will likely need to both determine your strategy and what tactics will be needed to increase the visibility of your new brand.

Most firms update their marketing plan and marketing budget once a year, spending the majority of their time evaluating current performance and adjusting tactics. While they may take a cursory look at the bigger picture, few firms retool their entire marketing strategy each year.

Importance of Marketing Planning

How important is marketing planning for professional services? Some would make the case that marketing planning, and indeed any marketing, is a waste of time and resources. They would argue that professional services marketing is based entirely on referrals, personal contacts and repeat business. Marketing is a non-essential activity, a “nice to have” when there is available money and time.

This view is often held by executives, usually in senior management positions, who have long histories in professional services. The only problem with this view is that the data doesn’t support it. In other words, it is wrong—and short sighted.

Two lines of research support the importance of marketing planning. The first is an ongoing study by the Hinge Research Institute into professional services buyers’ behavior.

This study shows that while referrals remain important, their significance has been in steady decline for a number of years. The research also shows that buyers value firms that can demonstrate superior relevant expertise over those with a strong referral. And importantly, the visibility of most professional services firms has waned over the years. So from the perspective of your buyers, the marketing process is more important than ever before to differentiate you, raise your market profile and explain why your firm is a superior choice.

The second line of relevant research comes from our studies of the fastest growing and most profitable professional services firms. In this research series, we ask the question, “What do the fastest growing firms do differently than their slower growing peers?”

We learned is that firms that don’t actively tracking marketing results or base their plans on older historical data tend to grow more slowly and have lower profitability. Conversely, firms that track marketing key performance indicators (KPIs) and the return on investment (ROI) of their marketing activities are more likely to be in the high-growth (which we define as exhibiting 20% or greater compound annual top-line growth) and high-profit (25% or greater profitability) categories.

Advantages like these arrive come by accident. If you want enjoy superior growth and profitability, the marketing planning process is essential. Now let’s focus on the specific benefits of a systematic professional services marketing planning process.

Benefits of the Marketing Planning Process

It’s important to take a thoughtful, step-by-step approach to your marketing plan. Done right, marketing planning can yield a number of valuable benefits that can jumpstart your success:

  1. It encourages you to revisit old habits and assumptions. In a changing world, you have to be prepared to adapt — continuing to do things the way you’ve always done them is not a winning strategy. A good marketing plan should take you, to some degree, outside your comfort zone. As you develop each year’s plan, you’ll get in the habit of questioning everything you’ve done to date and why you thought it would work. Just because you’ve “always done something that way” doesn’t mean it still works.
  1. It reduces risk by introducing new facts. The process of developing a marketing plan forces you to reexamine your marketplace, your competition, your target audience, and your value proposition. This kind of focused research reduces risk because it compels you to evaluate your business model and marketing program before you commit time and money to them. According to our studies of professional services marketing, firms that conduct systematic research into their target audiences grow faster and are more profitable.
  1. It provides accountability. Marketing planning makes both your marketing and business development teams set specific targets and measure their progress against those goals. Management is accountable for providing enough resources to ensure the marketing plan has a reasonable chance to succeed.
  1. It is proactive rather than reactive. Planning ahead puts you in control of your marketing so you can maximize its impact. However, it’s important to be agile enough to react to changing circumstances. Having a well-documented plan makes it easier to adjust it along the way.
  1. It can become a competitive advantage. High-growth firms use their marketing strategy as a differentiator. By giving some thought to what makes your firm unique, you should be able to develop compelling differentiators — one or more clear reasons to select your firm over an otherwise similar one.

The 7-Step Marketing Planning Process

There are many ways to approach marketing planning. After testing and developing plans for hundreds of firms, we have some strong opinions on the subject. Follow the seven steps below, and you will not only cover all your bases, you will uncover new opportunities to build engagement and visibility.

  1. Understand the business situation your firm is facing. The purpose of marketing is to enable a firm to achieve its business goals. If you do not start with a clear understanding of those goals and any constraints that limit your ability to achieve them, you will be unlikely to succeed.

Look closely at the factors that affect your standing in the marketplace:

  • Has an influx of new competitors slowed your growth?
  • Is price sensitivity squeezing the margins on your existing services?
  • Are you competing in a commoditized market?
  • Are you poised to lose key players to retirement?

These are just a few of the key business drivers of marketing strategy.

Often, you can use a SWOT analysis to organize and evaluate your business drivers. Within this framework, observations about the firm or practice are categorized as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, or threats. You want to do everything you can to root your planning process in reality. While that may seem obvious, many firms spend little time on their SWOT analysis, relying instead on personal beliefs and anecdotal experience.

There is a better way. Start conducting regular, systematic research into your marketplace. Firms that do this kind of research at least once a year grow faster and are more profitable.

Different types of research apply to different stages of the planning process. For example, opportunity research compares the viability of different markets or target audiences. Client or persona research helps you get a better understanding of your target clients and how they select a firm. When we assist clients with the planning process, we often combine several types of research into a comprehensive package we call brand research that can be applied throughout the planning process.

  1. Research and understand your target clients. It’s rare to meet practicing professionals who do not believe that they fully understand their clients, their needs, and their priorities. Sadly, they are almost always wrong about some key element of their clients’ thinking, decision-making, or real priorities, and they rarely understand how clients choose new providers.

For example, you may realize that your clients value you as a trusted advisor. What you may miss, however, is that almost no potential client goes looking for a trusted advisor. Instead, they are almost always looking for someone to solve a specific business problem.

If you understand that key distinction — and build your marketing plan accordingly — you will win more new clients, and then evolve into their trusted advisor. Remember this every time you see a competitor position their firm as trusted advisors. They’ve got things backward.

When you are doing research, focus on your best, most desirable client segments. Which ones do you want more of? This will help you isolate which important benefits you derive from them and equip you to find more clients like them. It will also help you learn where your clients get information and how they search for new providers. These insights will help you in subsequent steps. 

  1. Position your brand in the marketplace. Successful positioning rejects conformity. At its best, positioning elevates a brand above the fray so that people can’t help but take notice. The human brain instinctively looks for things that are different and unexpected. So a brand that stands in stark contrast to its competition will attract people’s attention and have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.

This starts with identifying what makes you different. These are called your differentiatorsand they must pass three tests. Each must be:

  • True— You can’t just make it up. You must be able to deliver upon your promise every day.
  • Provable— Even if it is true, you must be able to prove it to a skeptical prospect.
  • Relevant— If it is not important to a prospect during the firm selection process it will not help you win the new client.

Aim to uncover three to five good differentiators. If you have fewer than that, take heart. Sometimes one great differentiator may be enough.

Next, use your differentiator(s) to write a focused, easy-to-understand positioning statementThis is a short paragraph that summarizes what your firm does, who it does it for, and why clients choose you over competitors. It positions you in the competitive market space and becomes the DNA of your brand.

Of course, you have to actually be different. Read over your positioning statement and make sure it actually separates you from your key competitors. At the same time, check that your most important points of differentiation are simple to understand. Prospective buyers should be able to describe how you are different in just a few words.

Each of your audiences (e.g., potential clients, referral sources, potential employees) is interested in different aspects of your firm. As a result, you may need to develop different messages for different audiences. Each of your messages should be consistent with your firm’s overall positioning, but they may focus on different benefits or address different objections. 

  1. Define and refine your service offerings. Marketing and service innovation are inextricably intertwined. Often overlooked in the planning process, your service offerings can get stale. Evolving your services over time is how you develop and hone a competitive advantage.

As clients’ needs change, you may want to create entirely new services to address those needs. Your research may uncover issues clients are not even aware of yet, such as an impending regulatory change that might suggest a range of possible service offerings. Or you might change or automate part of your process to deliver more value at a lower cost with higher margins.

Whatever these service changes turn out to be, they should be driven by your business analysis and your research into clients and competitors.

  1. Identify which marketing techniques you will be using. This starts with understanding your target audiences and how they consume information. Once you gain insight into how, where, and when your prospects are looking for information about services like yours, you can identify and exploit their preferred channels. It’s all about making your expertise more tangible and visible to your target audience. We call this Visible Expertise.

Achieving high-level visibility requires a balance of marketing efforts — our research has shown that a 50/50 blend of offline (traditional) and online (digital) techniques often works best.


In addition to balancing your marketing techniques, be sure to create content for all levels of the sales funnel — to attract prospects, engage them and turn them into clients. To keep things as efficient as possible, plan to use content in multiple ways. For example, content developed for a webinar could be repurposed as blog posts, guest articles, and a conference presentation.

  1. Identify the new tools, skills, and infrastructure you will need. New techniques need new tools and infrastructure. It’s time to add any new ones you may need or revise those that aren’t up to date. Here are some of the most common tools:
  • Website – Modern marketing begins with your website. Your strategy should tell you if you need a new website or if adjusting your current messaging or functionality will be sufficient.
  • Marketing Collateral – You may need to revise your marketing collateral to reflect your new positioning and competitive advantage. Common examples of collateral include brochures, firm overview decks, one-sheet service descriptions, and tradeshow materials.
  • Marketing Automation – Software is making it easier and easier to automate your marketing infrastructure. In fact, marketing automation tools can be a game-changer and essential to building a competitive edge.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)  – Online search has transformed marketing. Today, every firm that conducts content marketing needs a solid grasp of SEO fundamentals — from keyword research to on-site and off-site optimization.
  • Social Media – You may need to create or update your firm’s social media profiles. And don’t forget to see if the profiles of your subject matter experts need a revision.
  • Video – Common ways to use video include firm overviews, practice overviews, case stories, blog posts, and educational presentations. If your subject matter experts have limited time to devote to developing content, video may be an efficient way to use the time they have.
  • Email – You’ll need a robust email service that allows you to track reader interactions and manage your list — it may even be built into your CRM or marketing automation software. Also, take a look at your email templates and decide if they need a refresh.
  • Speaker Kits – If your strategy involves public speaking or partner marketing, you may also need to develop a speaker kit. A speaker kit provides everything an event planner might need to evaluation one of your team members for a speaking event: a bio, professional photo, sample speaking topics, a list of past speaking engagements, and video clips.
  • Proposal Templates – Proposals are often the last thing a prospect sees before selecting a firm, so make sure yours sends the right message. At the very least, make sure you’ve included language that conveys your new positioning and differentiators.

Don’t forget the skills you will need. Even the best strategy will accomplish little if you don’t fully implement it. Many leaders find it challenging to build a full marketing strategy with just the right balance — and it can be even more challenging to keep teams up-to-date on today’s ever-changing digital tools. The fastest-growing firms use more outside talent.

  1. Document your operational schedule and budget. This is where your strategy gets translated into specific actions that you will take over time. Your written plan should include detailed timelines and deadlines so that you can measure your progress against them. Did a task happen as scheduled? Did it produce the expected results? These results will become the input for the next round of marketing planning.

You will need two key documents: a marketing calendar and a marketing budget. The marketing calendar should include every tactic you will use to implement your plan. It can cover the upcoming quarter or even the entire year. Begin by entering any events you know about, such as annual conferences and speaking events. Include regularly scheduled blog posts, emails, trade shows, webinars — everything in your plan. Recognize that you may need to adjust your calendar from time to time. The purpose is to establish consistency and predictability. Leave room for last-minute changes, but don’t get too far away from your plan and budget.

To build a budget, start with the tools and infrastructure we just mentioned. For recurring elements such as advertising, estimate the cost for a single instance then multiply by the frequency. Use benchmarks when available, and don’t forget to allow for contingencies, typically 5-10% of the overall budget.

Examples of Marketing Planning

To help you understand the marketing planning process in more detail, let’s look at each step in the process through the lens of two real-life firms. We’ve changed a few details to keep them anonymous, but in all other respects these capture the process in action.

The first is a small technology consulting firm that has grown through referrals from current and former clients. The second is a large accounting firm with multiple practice areas and industry verticals. We’ll walk through each of the steps in the planning process to demonstrate similarities and differences in how planning is done.

Step 1: Understand your business situation

Our small technology firm has reached the limits of their referral base. Growth has slowed and they are not sure how to revive it. Their clients come from multiple industry sectors, with the highest concentration in manufacturing.

The large accounting firm has many audiences with little concentration in any industry. Their goal is to grow their advisory practice, as their traditional tax and accounting service lines are becoming progressively more commoditized.

Step 2: Research your target audience

Our small consulting firm is faced with a decision. Who should their target client be? To answer this question they looked at their manufacturing clients and compared them to their other clients. After conducting brand research, they learned that the manufacturing segment was a better match with their experience and this segment valued their services more highly because of their industry experience and understanding.

Our large accounting firm sampled their advisory clients—which were their highest business priority—as well as clients from other segments. They learned that their among those who had used their advisory services they were highly regarded, but few clients were aware that the firm even offered this service.

Step 3: Position your brand

Our technology consulting firm had few differentiators. “Doing great work” just wasn’t going to cut it. They made a decision to focus on their area of greatest strength and positioned themselves as specialists in manufacturing firms. While they would continue to accept work from existing non-manufacturing clients, they would focus their marketing on this narrower target market.

The accounting firm decided to position themselves primarily as an advisory firm that also supports their clients with other services. While this was a somewhat aspirational goal at the time, their business priority moving forward was to focus on selling advisory services to their existing tax clients. They would, with time, grow into their positioning.

Step 4: Define your service offerings

Our technology consulting firm realized that they would have to offer a broad range of services to the manufacturing community. Their research suggested that process automation was a service that was especially in demand by their clients. This required hiring a new staff member with that experience and skill set.

The accounting firm was already offering advisory services so did not feel a need to broaden their portfolio of services. What they did need was to cross train their existing tax professionals to pitch and deliver basic advisory services.

Step 5: Identify your marketing techniques

There are a wide variety of marketing techniques to choose from. The primary goal is to use the techniques that will get you in front of prospective clients where they are looking for business advice and insight. But where do you get this information? From your research.

Our small consulting firm is focused on techniques that help them be found during web searches. This involves producing valuable content that easily can be found online. The firm invested in search engine optimization (SEO) and paid digital advertising to make sure their valuable thought leadership would be discovered by people searching for this information on search engines. In addition, to build visibility among their key audience they also began attending two key manufacturing conferences.

The large accounting firm is in a position to employ more techniques. They are focused on developing more valuable educational content around advisory services. These include a series of webinars on issue areas in which advisory services would be very valuable. The webinar series is accompanied by an executive guide that describes how to make best use of advisory services. These materials target existing tax clients and new prospects.

Step 6: Identify new tools, skills and infrastructure

The technology consulting firm needed several new tools. The website needed a total upgrade to reflect the firm’s updated focus. And their marketing collateral and case studies had to be reconceived. In addition, they set up new SEO and digital marketing campaigns, as well.

As we mentioned above, the accounting firm required a training and skills development program to equip their team to cross sell and deliver services. They also needed new webinar infrastructure and training to facilitate the transition to this new marketing strategy. They would also need an advisory brochure to use in the selling process.

Step 7: Document your schedule and budget

In this step we consider the timing of your marketing efforts (your marketing calendar) and their cost (your marketing budget). Consider both one-time and ongoing costs separately.

Our technology firm laid out the one-time costs and estimated the time and budget needed for ongoing marketing efforts. As a small firm, their marketing expenses are higher as a percentage of revenue than at most larger firms. Also, since this was their first real marketing plan, there were also more one-time set-up expenses than in organizations with established marketing functions.

Our large advisory-oriented accounting firm went through the same process. There were a number of one-time expenses to set up the infrastructure, train people, and produce the needed content. After the initial materials were produced, the implementation expenses were much lower. Their marketing calendar laid out the schedule and the budget captured the costs.

These two examples show how professional services firms can produce specific, actionable marketing plans using the seven step process. Now let’s turn our attention to some of the top marketing planning tips. These may help you solve common planning challenges.

Top Marketing Planning Tips

The planning process can be daunting. Here are a few tips to make it go more smoothly. 

  1. Start with a review of how the world has changed since your last planning process. This will put needed changes into context and prepare your team to consider new ideas. For example, what marketing strategy has your competition put into place and what new competitors, if any, have appeared? Have your sales and revenue changed? Have you introduced new services? Any change in your marketing environment requires a change in marketing plans.
  2. Focus on the problems you solve and the value you can bring, not the services you provide. Remember, prospects will not care about you and what you have to offer until they realize the value you can provide them. That means focusing on what their problems are and how you can solve them. They’re not buying your services. They’re buying your solutions.
  3. Always lead with research. Knowledge is power. The more you know about your market, your clients, your prospects, and your competition, the better you can address them in your marketing plan. Research reduces risk. Invest in it and you won’t be sorry. But remember, professional services are different. Consumer-style research won’t work for B2B professional services.
  4. Expertise wins new clients and attracts top talent. Potential clients don’t want to hire amateurs — they want to hire the best talent their money can buy. By making your expertise visible and compelling, you’ll ensure that prospects talk to you first. Also, the best employee talent wants to work for the top firms. If your firm is seen as a true experts in its area, you’ll attract the best employees, too. 
  5. Expertise is best conveyed by visibility and making complicated topics understandable. The more your firm’s experts are seen and heard — and the more prospects turn to them for a clear understanding of complex topics affecting them — the more new business you’ll attract.

We call these people Visible Experts®, and our research shows that buyers seek them out when they have a specific problem or challenge that requires a solution fast.

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  1. Use marketing techniques that have been proven effective. Once again, a little homework goes a long way. As discussed earlier, find out how prospects like to receive their information and then include those channels in your marketing plan. Don’t waste time and money using channels that potential clients aren’t using. Above all, make sure your website is current, is easy to navigate, and contains the kind of valuable content that attracts the right target audience.
  2. Most marketing does not work because it is not correctly implemented. Even the best-laid plans can go awry if they are under-resourced, under-funded, and poorly implemented. Make sure you have the right plan in place and the resources and talent needed to successfully implement it. If you don’t have the ability to implement in-house, partner with an outside resource that does.
  3. Select fewer initiatives, but fully resource those you do. Focus on the quality of your efforts rather than delivering quantity. If you want to try a new technique, decide which old one you are going to stop (or pause). It’s far more effective to focus on a few highly targeted techniques than take a shotgun approach and implement a dozen half-baked marketing initiatives.
  4. Make sure you can attract the talent you will need. Employer brand is an often-overlooked but crucial element in any marketing effort. Professional services firms that can attract and retain the right talent have a major strategic advantage.
  5. Track each stage of the marketing pipeline. Do not measure short-term impacts only. Your marketing plan should align with your firm’s overall business development strategy. We’ve seen good results from marketing plans that contain specific milestones, offering a long-term roadmap to grow your firm.
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The right marketing plan and tools give professional services firms the power to expand their horizons and reach audiences in distant markets. But your marketing plan has to be flexible. Online marketing gives you the power to recognize what is working and what isn’t, and you need to be prepared to make adjustments on the fly. But don’t discard traditional tactics that have been working for you just because they are old. Carefully consider every technique’s role and value in your marketing, then use research and your best judgment to select the best ones for your plan. Just don’t bite off too much, or you may drown in a sea of possibilities.

Happy planning!

Elizabeth Harr

How Hinge Can Help

Hinge has developed a comprehensive program, The Visible Firm®, to deliver greater visibility, growth and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to attract new clients and attain new heights of profitability and growth.

Additional Resources

  • Keep pace with the marketplace, generate leads and build your reputation all at once: download our free Marketing Planning Guide.
  • Equip yourself with the knowledge and tools you need to lead your firm through the rebranding process with Hinge’s Rebranding Guide.
  • For more tips and insights specific for professional services firms, check out Hinge University.